KING OF CLAY Rafa Nadal has equalled Roger Federer’s tally of 20 tennis majors after trouncing rival Novak Djokovic in a mesmerising French Open final.
In one of the most complete performances of his career, magnificent Nadal dropped just seven games as he triumphed 6-0, 6-2, 7-5 in front of 1,000 gobsmacked punters at Roland Garros.
This represents his 13th French Open title – nobody has been more dominant at one tournament on the ATP calendar – and more importantly, parity with Federer at the highest echelon of the sport.
Federer, 39, has been the standard-bearer for the Big Three ever since he won Wimbledon in 2003 but now Nadal, 34, is level and overwhelming favourite to overtake him in the historical stakes.
For world No1 Djokovic, this was his first proper defeat of the year, excluding the US Open default, and the rare sight of him looking mortal on a tennis court.
This was a record 56th meeting between the pair and once they are done, and hopefully not too soon, it will be remembered as one of sport’s greatest rivalries.
Up there alongside Ali-Frazier, Coe-Ovett, Palmer-Nicklaus, Senna-Prost, Borg-McEnroe.
About half an hour before the final started, light rain started to fall on Roland Garros, and the decision was taken to close the £50million roof on Court Philippe-Chatrier.
It was thought the cooler temperatures in Paris, a high of 14 degrees, would suit Djokovic more than Nadal because the defending champion prefers the hotter climate, which results in quicker balls and higher bounces.
And given the conditions, it was expected the dropshot would figure heavily in this match. Djokovic, who persisted with it in the five-set semi-final win over Stefanos Tsitsipas, showed his hand straightaway, attempting four in the opening game.
Two came off, one hit the net, while another was anticipated by Nadal, who ended up earning a break of serve at the first attempt.
Djokovic had joked this is the “House of Rafa” and he soon realised he was an unwelcome guest, falling 4-0 down in the first set and wasting three break points in the fourth game.
Sure enough, this was clearly not Djokovic’s afternoon. In the fifth game, he went from 40-love ahead to deuce and then surrendered his serve once again. Nadal’s level and quality was extraordinary.
To emphasise how brilliant he was playing, Nadal bagelled Djokovic 6-0 in the first set in 48 minutes.
It was only the second time that had happened in their prolific battles, the first occurring in Rome at the 2019 Italian Open final.
Nadal’s relentless intensity, physicality and unwavering court movement continued in the second set as Djokovic faced three break points in the opening game before holding his serve.
As the unforced error count continued to rise, and Djokovic’s second serve and backhand started to malfunction, Nadal took the second set 6-2 despite a time warning for slow serving.
Disenchanted Djokovic, who holds the Wimbledon and Australian Open crowns, was nowhere near his best and strangely there were few signature signs of aggression or emotion.
Perhaps a relic of what happened in New York when his petulance, unintentionally hitting the ball against the throat of a line judge, led to his expulsion.
There was one moment when he tried to whip up the small crowd with an emotive outburst – he had finally managed to break Nadal in the sixth game – but it was too little, too late.
Nadal broke in the 11th game, benefiting from a Djokovic double fault, and went on to celebrate his 100th win in his favourite event – and a special place in the history books alongside Swiss foe Federer.
Speaking after the win, Nadal said: "Congratulations to Novak for another great tournament. Sorry for today.
“In Australia, he killed me a couple of times. Today it was me. It’s part of the game, we have played plenty of times.
"One day one person wins, the next day the other. All the best for the future, Novak.
“After all the things I have gone through in my career in terms of injuries, without a great team and family around me, everything would be impossible.
"It has been a very tough year, winning here means everything to me. It's not the moment for me to talk about the 20th Slams and equalling Roger on this great number.
"For me, it's Roland Garros, it means everything to me. I have spent my most important moments in my tennis career here.
"Thank you to all the team here and the rest of the team at home, who couldn’t come because of this very tough situation.
“I want to send a message to everyone around the world: we are facing one of the worst moments we remember in this world, fighting against this virus.
"Just keep going, stay positive and all the very best. Together we will go through this and be victorious soon.”
Follow Rob Maul on Twitter @Rob_Maul.
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